Is the Palestinian movement Fatah losing its soul?
London - The Palestinian movement Fatah is scheduled to hold its first party congress in seven years in Ramallah on November 29th amid controversy over what some argue is a limited list of delegates.
A new central leadership committee will be elected during the gathering, which is expected to pave the way towards agreeing on a successor to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas, 81, has been in ill health, and media reports suggest the new central committee will name a deputy for him at the end of the congress, which is expected to last two to three days. Abbas is also the head of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as well as the commander of the security forces.
The leak of the list of the gathering’s participants to the media has sparked outrage among veteran Fatah members who were not invited.
“Thousands of veteran Fatah members who represent the soul of the movement were excluded from taking part in the congress that shapes its future,” said Fadel Ashour, a Fatah member based in the Gaza Strip who was invited to the congress.
The number of delegates is said to be about 1,350. According to Ashour, about 3,500 took part in the last meeting in 2009.
“Fatah represents a wide section of Palestinian society. You cannot have a small number of people determining its direction,” Ashour said. “Those who are excluded will feel hurt and angry and may not support the new leadership, as they did not take part in the process of electing it.”
The two most prominent names touted as Abbas’s successors are veteran politician Nasser al-Qudwa, and the head of the Palestine Football Association, Jibril Rajoub.
Fatah members who are suspected of supporting former senior security official Mohammed Dahlan to succeed Abbas have reportedly been excluded.
“Such a congress is supposed to be held after reuniting Fatah, not take place while excluding Dahlan and his supporters. This move runs counter to the unity of Fatah; it only deepens its wounds,” said Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian minister and a Fatah member now based, like Dahlan, in the UAE.
“Those who were involved in the struggle for Palestine, which includes [their] spending years in Israeli prisons, were excluded from attending. Many elected members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council were not invited,” said Abu Zaida. “How can the security apparatus take charge of what is essentially a political movement?”
Some observers fear that the congress will hijack Fatah from its base by cementing the movement’s control in the hands of the PA.
“The seventh Fatah conference is a key example for how the trappings of democracy can be used in authoritarian contexts. This conference is not about rebuilding Fatah as a national liberation movement, but is about officially transforming Fatah into a ‘ruling party’, as in other parts of the Arab world,” said Geneva-based Palestinian writer Alaa Tartir.
“This comes as part and parcel of the police state in the making that is framed in a state-building project. Fatah leadership is not interested in a meaningful reform process as the status quo is convenient to them. Changing some players is merely a cosmetic modification if the rules of the game are fixed,” added Tartir, who is the programme director of Al-Shabaka, a US-based non-profit organisation.
Critics say that not only is there a heavy over-representation of the PA and members of security forces as delegates to the congress, but that there has also been an under-representation of influential Fatah members who live abroad, especially when considering that millions of Palestinians live in exile.
“The number of delegates representing the Palestinian diaspora in different parts of the world, including the Arab region, is 128 out of the attending 1,350, in other words just 9%,” Mueen Taher, a former member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, wrote in an opinion piece in the New Arab newspaper.
In addition to internal divisions within Fatah, Abbas is also facing pressure from the rival Hamas movement as well as the so-called Arab quartet — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Jordan — which views his leadership as divisive .
From the perspective of at least some of the delegates, however, the congress comes at the right time to strengthen the movement’s resolve.
“This is very important, a crucial congress for Fatah to reorganise the movement and renew the legitimacy of the leadership,” Rajoub told Reuters. “The next period should be how we reorganise the whole political system.”
His fellow candidate for the leadership, Qudwa, is also optimistic. “I hope to see an appropriate mix between those who are now in the leading bodies and the new generation, representatives of the new guard,” he told Reuters. “There will be some changes from the last meeting.”